The past in color

By Razib Khan | August 26, 2010 1:11 am

I don’t know about you, but I have a weird mental problem whereby my visual model of the past is strongly shaped by the constraints on the various representational modes which preserve images from a particular era. For example, the paintings of the 18th century shape how I imagine the 18th century, while the black and white photos of the early 20th century tend to drain color out of that period from my mind’s eye. So it’s always of interest to me when extremely old color photographs are discovered. A reminder to my subconscious that the past looked just like the present in many ways. But this set from The Boston Globe are so good that it’s mind blowing. All the images are from between 1909 and 1912, and within the boundaries of the Russian Empire.

Here’s a sample:

p24_00021067Image Credit: Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

  • Zachary Latif

    Amazng pictures of the Russian Empire; mindblowing as you say.

    Picture 20 could be present day Afghanistan; I’ve seen a picture much like it.

    What is interesting all the Jewish & Christian folk are in national costumes, so you can tell are remnants from another day. The Muslim folk, on the other hand, are also in national costumes but one could easily argue that alot of them could be mistaken for the present day; particularly more the women. I never really realised how prevalent the hijab/niqab/purdah really was; it seemed to have been the national dress.

    The colour photography does connects the divide between the first and second half of the 20th century.

    I guess you are right that we perceive the past through the relics/images but I’ve just realised I don’t tend to “visualise” past or future all that much.

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  • Stephen

    The entire collection at the LOC is here: Many or most of the photos are present as huge digital files. Also, here is a recent post at Iconic Photos about occupied Paris and early Agfa color film — another example of the phenomenon:

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    The quality of those photos is shocking. The color looks almost true to life.

    I’m in the same boat as Zachary in not visualizing the past or future that much though so it doesn’t directly impact my attitude much.

  • Stephen

    @Joshua — The true-to-life appearance is misleading. For ones I’ve checked quickly at least, the version has been color-corrected from the LOC original. PhotoShop and such make this ridiculously easy to do, but to me it’s historical travesty. What’s astounding is NOT how life-like the colors are, but that colors so vibrant at all, and so sharp, could be generated that long ago by a reasonable but outdated process (three separate bw copies made with color filters, etc.). The original tones in the LOC versions should not be messed with. When/if we do imagine the past, it needs to be with the technology of the time, not ours. I do commend, however, for including a link to the LOC version below every photo. This does make it easy to make one’s own comparisons. More commonly, folks who re-process LOC stuff leave it difficult to find the original.

  • Nondescript American

    Stunning pictures. Personally I think you are right about visualizations of the past being shaped by media, or at least whether photos are color versus black and white. (For the world before photographs I think I’m most inspired by more modern depictions, so it’s not so clear. Ever seen 300?)

    I will show these to friends.

  • John Emerson

    I have a friend who travels around the Balkans and the Middle East and sometimes uses an old camera to make archaic-looking photos of the present day.

  • trajan23

    A great collection of photos, Razib. Some comments:

    1. Visual depictions of the past: Jacques Barzun has commented on how period paintings shape our sense of the past. For example, he has observed that our grasp of the post 1750 18th century British North American colonies/USA is much stronger than our grasp of the pre-1750 period because of the increase in the number of talented painters (John Singleton Copley, Benjamin WEst, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Charles Wilson Peale, etc.)

    2. Bleaching out of color: even though I know that the ancient Greeks and Romans wore colored clothing, I just can’t quite visualize them in it; the influence of the bleached out portrait busts and reliefs is too strong.

  • Georg

    Boston Globe writes:
    He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images.

    I think, he used a Bermpohl camera, invented some years earlier:
    Taking the color extract pictures one after the other
    is possible for stills, but nor for a flock of children :=)

  • Stephen

    @George — That’s a fascinating camera! It’s possible Prokudin-Gorskii used this, but his usual one was likely more like this: (All references are careful to say “this type” or “one like this” as if perhaps he was making or having made his own versions.) All the LOC links I’ve checked show the original bw glass plate, which does have three successive photos on one negative, as this simpler camera would do. Also, note that in Razib’s example above, it’s clear that some children did indeed move between shots.

  • Insightful

    You think those are old? Razib, take a look at this color photo from 1877! It is of Agen, France, by Louis Ducos du Hauron. The cathedral in the scene is the Cathédrale Saint-Caprais d’Agen.

  • John Emerson

    Very old National Geographics have colored pictures which may have been made by this process. They resemble the unretouched Prokudin-Gorskii photos.

  • Stephen

    It turns out that this is more subtle than I at first thought, and I have to call myself on it. Actually, the LOC “originals” are digital re-constitutions made using the three-panel bw plates in their possession. So historical accuracy depends on how well the three component colors match what any one printer/projector used in Prokudin-Gorskii’s day. Because so many LOC versions have an unreal quality to today’s eyes, it’s clear that they didn’t just click the “auto-correct color” button to make them modern in a wholesale manner. My main point is that if this is done later by others, the apparent realism may be misleading. As to National Geographic colors, we need to consider the primitivity of early color films, of early magazine color printing, and the fading of those prints over time. There are more ways to arrive at the unreal than at accuracy, and each one is a historical artifact of its day. Today’s over-saturated digital colors and lurid HDR treatments are no less arbitrary and unreal than most older color technologies. The goal has often been impact, not accuracy.

  • Marnie

    Enjoyed this very much. Thanks for the link.

  • Brian Too

    I’ve always had a mental image of World War II that was shaped by the extensive Black & White pictures and movie footage of the day. Also, I saw the excellent BBC series “The World at War” at an impressionable age. Which was almost entirely in B&W.

    Decades later, I learned there was some rare colour footage of the war that was shot by (Sam Peckinpah? It was someone who went on to have a successful career as a movie director). It was really discordant to see a more “realistic” view of the war. It was like watching a postwar movie about the war rather than the war itself.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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